What Happened to Craft?

The one thing that everyone working in the visual communications industry has in common—whether you are in advertising or design—is that we all got into this business because of our passion for art. Some of us loved photography, others film, while the rest just loved drawing, painting or creating things.

The last 10 years, and the last five in particular, have made us all obsessed with technology. I personally spend at least 12 hours in front of some kind of monitor shining its light at my face each day. I began as an art director, so my background was a combination of marketing and fine arts. I drew, I painted, I tried photography, I tried product packaging, I shot commercials, worked on film and more. But the Internet has made us obsessed with the power of social media, and it has torn us away from reverence for the art and craft at the core of what we do.

This is a constant complaint I hear from creative directors hiring juniors out of schools, because the portfolios are coming out with highly integrated campaigns that have iPhone apps and geolocation ideas, but no craft. From my perspective on the other end running two international award shows, we get inundated with case studies that all focus on glamourizing the fact their entry was retweeted over 5 trillion times, and it was covered by every single blog in the galaxy.

So is craft worthless? Did art take second place to technology?

Well if it did, then we might as well hang up our hats and quit our jobs. Because if you think about it, art and craft are the only things that separate us from clients. Whether you are a freelancer or a WPP global agency, you get hired for one thing, and that one thing is our ability to use our artistic senses to make attention-grabbing creative business solutions.

I do admit; it was a lot easier to understand the concept of craft before the inundation of technology. When I was an art director doing a TV or print campaign, all I had to do was execute on one, or maybe a few really, really beautiful pieces.

Have you ever done a product shoot for food with a good photographer? I was shocked when I did to see the photographer spend hours arranging lights and meticulously placing every drop of fake bottle sweat (actually, I learned that it was glycerin) with a toothpick. Now, with campaigns being complex hybrid solutions over multiple media channels, it’s harder to focus on each piece and give all the attention to craft that it deserves.

Nevertheless, I think we have reached a point in our industry where it’s time to flock (I predict a high-flock rate in the next year or two) back to craft.

Why? Because there is just too much stuff out there.

Three years ago, you could get away with taking a brand to the iTunes store with a funny app. Nowadays consumers judge apps not only on functionality, but on how slick they are. One good example is Clear, a to-do list that is just absolutely gorgeous. I don’t think the idea would have worked if the designer hadn’t spent so many hours polishing the color palette, typography and user experience.

Another example? Remember the Johnnie Walker The Man Who Walked Around the World ad? Without incredibly polished acting, and a beautifully gorgeous shot, would it have received so many views? Need a more recent example? Think of how much craft went into the Old Spice Guy.

I might run two international award shows, but the truth is that I don’t own a TV, and I also don’t subscribe to magazines or print publications any more. The world has changed. If a commercial message of any kind is to stop me—whether it is direct mail, or an event, or an app, or a cinema commercial—it’s going to have to be absolutely arrestingly beautiful. Why? Because I’m consuming media like never before. Don’t believe me? Well look at your own habits. All the shows that we’re now all addicted to, like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey… what do they have in common?

The answer is craft. They are more polished and art directed than most movies are these days. Our eyes eat up every single detail on the screen, and we’re enjoying it. It’s the reason why I bet that most of the people reading this article have spent more money on television series’ and show downloads (or DVD’s) than on movies this year. Am I wrong?

The same parallel applies to those of us working in communications. The products we buy, the commercials that make us act and the stores we go into need to become more and more beautiful. To do that, art directors, designers, copywriters and creative directors have to slow down, take a deep breath and go back to the roots of our business. An online campaign cannot be just interactive and funny, it has to be gorgeous. A banner cannot just be clever, it has to have beautiful typography. The copy on a Facebook post has to be re-written 10 times until it is catchy and clever. The photos we use on our ads have to be good enough to make you want to lick the screen on your brand new, retina display iPad.

Don’t be afraid. Technology is not king in our industry. Craft is. We’ll never be able to ‘catch up’ with technology. We’ve reached a pace at which no one, and I mean no one, is able to write a book about technology because it changes so damn fast. So don’t try to fight that fight. Craft and art in advertising and design, on the other hand, are the skills that define your trade. If we lose them, we’ll become nothing more than programmers. And trust me, as a creative, I know that math and science are not our strong suits.

So let’s go back to our roots, and let’s make communication beautiful again. It’s what we get paid for, and what drove us into this business. More importantly, it’s what makes us tick.

Ignacio Oreamuno
Executive Director, Art Directors Club